The Fiery Furnaces
Mark Savage 14/11/2007
Six albums in five years suggests its own tale: short attention spans, eyes ever forward, questing spirits. Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger are forever planning and plotting. Tonight, tightly augmented by muscular bass and drums, the chirpy organ settings no-one else will touch are rendered dynamic and diamond hard.
Fiery Furnaces songs are multi-parted; many sectioned mini-epics, filled with time changes, split and mixed like metaphors (or cocktails and bloody lips). The songs are contorted skeletons; riffs are discarded like chewed bones. This is why they don't appeal to all, and why they don't always come off, even to fans: This nervous need to move, and move on, unsettles, it leaves nothing to hang a dance on. And yet every new part is catchy as hell, demanding attention before being left behind. These songs are like prototypes, stunted, gorgeous failures in a uniquely thrilling way ("Clear Signal From Cairo" zips like Sparks, or the early avant-pop of Eno, "Japanese Slippers" is awkward kraut-glam for a brilliant minute before heading in five new directions), zinging full of pop possibility as they fidget into new sections and fritter away a chorus, adding it to the band's pyre of spent grooves.
Eleanor's echoless (like a pretty duck) and sexless (in a goodway, like Patti Smith shorn of the weary awareness of rock lineage and cool) vocals are always running ahead or behind the music, trying to keepup with the breathless ideas, squeeze in an extra line, while already on the next one. Whether she intones a lullaby, sings heartily or talks, her voice remains at exactly the same volume, never swooping and diving with the music, more a cryptic crossword answer incessantly being chattered. She is as much a key to their success and weirdness as the song structures, an enigma, shooting straight over what in other hands might become tiresomely 'kooky' music.
Much of tonight's set is from the newest album, Widow City, and each track displays such predictable unpredictability that there is a full three seconds of silence after each song, as the crowd registers that the twisting epic is actually over before falling into hearty applause. The response is overwhelmingly positive; but the tension between loving a band who pioneer forward into their own undiscovered countries, and wanting to hear them pull back, just a little, and throw out an old favourite or seven is tangible. The conundrum of this band is ever present. They might be so much better if they made even more out there music, and they might be so much better if they played it straighter. Nobody knows, but their high-speed tight-rope walk is always compelling.
A broken bass string means the last song has to be "Tropical Iceland", the almost-hit they almost didn't play, and its pulsing pop sends everyone into the cold happily perplexed.